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Jean Nouvel:  Expanding Carnegie Science Center

In Pittsburgh on March 14 for the announcement of his appointment as architect for the expansion of Carnegie Science Center, Jean Nouvel spoke with Robert J. Gangewere, editor of CARNEGIE magazine. As they sat on the balcony of the fifth floor of the Science Center,  they overlooked the downtown on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

Nouvel, at the peak of a distinguished career that has brought him many honors for his work in Europe, has recently expanded his practice in the United States. He received the prestigious Gold Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2001, which noted that during the present era of architectural blandness and imitation, "His work shines through as having both clarity and finesse, originality and lyricism." 

Nouvel blends high technology with aesthetic originality.  In Paris his Arab Institute on the bank of the Seine delights visitors with a multilayered and often transparent interior.  This includes a glass wall with metal irises in the guise of traditional Islamic patterns, opening and closing like the human eye to control the intensity of light entering the building.   On Berlin's historic shopping street, the Friedrichstrasse, his Galeries Lafayette feature giant, sleek, glass cones to define the volumes, one cone rising several stories upwards from street level to the top of the building, and a smaller, inverted cone dropping down from street level past two underground shopping and two parking levels. His 1980s design for an endless tower (Tour Sans Fin) in Paris was never built--an office building that rose dramatically into the sky to disappear visually into the clouds in a haze of colored, transparent glass.

In Pittsburgh, dressed comfortably and completely in soft black leather, and smoking his Cuban cigar out-of-doors during a break in the meetings, he contemplated the Pittsburgh panorama before him.  In soft-spoken tones, he reflected on the challenge of this assignment, which he had said earlier he did not think he would win, given the length of the competition. 

Nouvel's English is good enough to communicate what he must. He searches sometimes, with the help of his two French advisors, for the English equivalent of the French expression.  He describes downtown as a presque isle (near island), and he seeks complémentarité (compatibility) between the Science Center and Heinz Field in their relation to the Pittsburgh Point.

You spoke about the genius of the place, having a feeling for this site and the identity of Pittsburgh.

For me what is incredible at this site is to be on the river and in this place, because we have the whole skyline of the hills in front of us.  There are outlines against the sky. You can read every branch of every tree, and it is very, very precise.  Against the horizon you see the cars, like in a panorama from a Western movie, which would have horses and cowboys.

The sequence of bridges is very strange…exactly like what you see with a zoom lens.  All the bridges are seen on the same plane, and you don't have the feeling of depth.  It is a flat screen.

But below the horizon are the two railways, and the cars, and the trucks on the bridges, and the barges on the river…all in circulation. This panorama is for me very important in relating the Science Center to downtown, and in capturing the feel of the downtown. The situation is very different when you are down on the river.  Up here, above the submarine, you feel the complexity.  You have the feeling you are in a dialogue with the scene, and so I try to catch that.  There are so many sensations. I like so much the park at the Point, in the foreground…it is a nice place.

The genius of the place is its identity, what you cannot find in another place.  Downtown is like a presque isle. This is a fantastic situation.  If you create a building where you have this feeling, you become very sensitive to your relationship with downtown.

But it is a difficult situation if you don't find the right scale for the height of the Science Center.  It is important to organize a building which has a façade over the existing building, and to create a kind of big Oriental screen in front of the city, in contrast with the stadium.  For this reason I want to go over the river with the cantilever.  With the cantilever you have an identity different from that of the stadium, but it is complementary.  This situation is very strategic.

Is that screen like a contemporary idea of the cinema, of using the city as visual experience, and of projecting images?

The screen is a two-way screen. When you are inside of the screen it is transparent, and you can interact with the bridges and the downtown.  When you are outside, during the day, you will see something very vague, with the people and the few lights inside, very mysterious.   During the night, because we have the fabric curtains, we can project movies or slides on an urban scale.  Your subjects are all the themes of modernity and the sciences.

Pittsburgh is a city of many symbols, like that of the steel industry.

Directly in front you do see the railroads, the barges, and it is not a pretty landscape, but rather a powerful landscape, and it is a powerful city.  Cities changed in the 20th century.  You have to look at Pittsburgh today, and you have to be proud of it.  In this case you have to catch what is around.  The proposed building itself is a little bit the same way: a logical structure.

My first thought is that you don’t have to change all of the original building itself.  I will try to see what we can keep, what we can recycle, and what is the new complémentarité.  I think it is important to have a new global building, to change the image.

When you put together two masses it is critical to juxtapose the two buildings in a bigger, more complex structure.  You cannot keep separate the situation of the first building, and the second one.  Rather you share a global architecture.

Is this similar to any of your other projects?

No.  But it has a little something in common with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, because in both cities we return to the river to catch something.  But the Guthrie is a kind of little bridge…an endless bridge with silos on it.  Here we have the "facetization" of this building, more like a new territory of the city.  Every building is a new situation, and is in a complex dialogue with the context.  The context is not only what is outside, but is also with the program inside …a story with the meaning of today's program.

Which of your buildings do you particularly like?

To this I cannot respond.  In every case I try to do what I feel is a good complementary structure.  A building changes the meaning of its surroundings, and you do not just create a building itself.  The modern way, today, is that a building has to give a sense to a territory, and not just a sense of itself.  Without that, cities are only a juxtaposition of buildings without relationships, and complexities are absent.

So Carnegie Science Center will not be a specific expression by Jean Nouvel? 

Rather it is an expression of a situation, a complementary dialogue.

But I always try to create the consciousness of the beauty of the situation, the poetry of the situation.  I try to define that.  If I were to talk about these bridges and so forth to a lot of people, they would not necessarily see that when they were inside the building.  You must create a little distance from these bridges to look at them.  I try to create what they show to me.  You have to begin to look at it another way. 

This city is wonderful at night…but all American downtowns are wonderful in the night.  This one has a very strong identity. 

This building will have park next to it.

Yes I propose not to keep the car park around this building, because that makes it like a supermarket.  It is important to use the park to create a distance from the stadium.  You can create an adventure park, in relationship with the promenade on the river.  In the urban situation here you have the park after the stadium, and the continuity of the promenade and the trees.  You enforce the urban idea by making the strongest promenade you can create. When you arrive at the Science Center you arrive in the middle of this park, this huge system, with the promenade as a strong link.

It is always difficult to arrive at a place, and to achieve the program.  But we will adapt the project, and make it do that.





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